(Xbox 360 Review) Rise of Nightmares

Developer: Sega
Publisher: Sega
Genre: Action / Survival Horror
Players: 1
ESRB: Mature
Reviewer: Philip Smith

Overall: 7 = Good

Rise of Nightmares is in many ways a product of the newer wave of horror films. Set in Romania, an American is trapped in a house of madness—well, more like a complex—within a reportedly haunted forest after a terrible accident has left him bruised and stranded. With some fellow Romani, Russian, and German survivors, the group sets out to find help but quickly fall prey to a sadistic scientist. Needless to say, another European countryside is stained with the blood of tortured tourists. But take heart, Eastern European readers, because while you might feel burned in this post-Hostel world, we’ll continue to visit your beautiful countries despite you killing us in terrible ways.

The setting isn’t terribly important anyway, as it is quickly being jettisoned in favor of a grim booby-trapped complex of buildings and tunnels that are filled with mechanically augmented zombies. It is, however, effective in setting up what becomes a surreal story since it’s not really explained why the main character and his soon-to-be-kidnapped wife are on a train in Romania. The only things that are established early on is that your character, Josh, is on thin ice with the misses after she finds that he’s still drinking, despite assurances otherwise, and that he may or may not be a terrible husband. That’s all for the future, though, because your most immediate concern will be trying not to be eaten alive by the shambling undead or hacked up and sewn back together.

To be honest, Rise of Nightmares really surprised me. Now, it might be that all of the years of the Wii’s unrealized promise have sufficiently lowered my expectations of what to expect out of motion controls, but I was going in assuming a much more traditional experience. Not all of the surprises come from the controls, either, as the game enjoys its horror-ness and reveals in killing as many characters as it possibly can in any number of gruesome ways. In many regards, it’s a better B-grade horror film than actual B-grade horror films—it’s much more willing to drop someone out of the blue. Although there isn’t much in the way of character development, and the backstory has to be fleshed out through your own efforts by tracking down recordings made by an unfortunate investigator, but Rise of Nightmares is less an attempt to present a truly frightening narrative as it is to place you in a carnival-style house of horrors. As you go from one area, hall, or room to another, you’ll be presented with challenges to overcome, be they handfuls of monsters to kill, traps to run through or crouch under, or (very) rudimentary puzzles to solve. In many ways it feels like an advanced Dragon’s Lair, but with you going through Dirk’s motions instead of watching a cinematic of Josh dodging and punching automatically.

Expectation plays a large role in how much you get out of the game. If you’re going in expecting a one-to-one ratio of motion-to-onscreen movement, then you’ll be disappointed; similarly, you’ll find the game wanting if you’re expecting it to advance the survival horror genre or Kinect control method. What Rise of Nightmares does in terms of advancing motion controls in gaming is very modest; however, what it does do is show just how much potential there is through some very clever workarounds on Sega’s part. One of the nicest touches, and one which shows an eye towards keeping motion-based games playable for extended periods of time, is the auto-walk feature. Forward and backward movement is done by moving a foot forward or back from a standing position—running is a bit … more … with you having to act as if you’re on fire to get moving—while turning is handled by swiveling the shoulders. In small amounts and for telegraphed encounters, this is perfectly fine. But in a game with maze-like areas and long corridors, it can be a bit tiresome to constantly learn forward or shift around to try to make your way in and out of a series of small rooms. To that end, the auto-walk feature allows for you to simply hold up your right hand to have the game readjust Josh and, in many cases, move him along to where he needs to be. Now in most games this would be ridiculous, but in a game that requires so much bodily movement, it’s an ingenious way to extend play time, cut down on confusion, and also obfuscate the Kinect’s inherent fickleness.

Similar thoughtful and sound design elements are sprinkled throughout the game. Encounters are set up to where a targeted enemy tends to be the sole focus of combat, allowing for you to dispatch them before fighting the next nearby monster; there’s a slight delay between an onscreen instruction and when an action is required, giving you time to actually perform the maneuver; and actions, such as splashing water on your face or climbing a ladder, are performed faster by going through the actual motions rather than just wiggling your hand back and forth. All of this makes for a more engrossing and enjoyable experience, easing the physical wear on the body that standing within a two-foot area for an hour-plus at a time can have while also increasing the sense of immersion. It also helps that the combat is more fleshed out than expected, with destructible weapons wielded in one hand or both hands—two-handed weapons only, no duel wielding, unfortunately—the ability to kick enemies back, punch, block, and a handful of quick-time events to shake things up.

An example would help. Let’s say you find yourself in a hallway with a door to the left and another straight ahead. Upon opening the door to the left—hold out your hand to engage the ‘interact’ icon over the door, then slide or twist your hand to open the door—you are prompted to crouch, and as you physically do so, Josh’s view skirts under spears that shoot past overheard. After getting back up, you see a crate to your immediate right. Putting your arms up, which then raises Josh’s hands, you punch forward to have Josh swing forward and break the crate. After spotting an ‘interact’ icon over a pipe, you hold your hand over it to have Josh pick it up. After leaving the room and preceding through the other door, a zombie nurse—thanks, Silent Hill—approaches. An onscreen target indicates that the enemy is locked-on, and you now raise your hands so Josh raises his in anticipation of combat. As she approaches and swings wildly, you hold your arms up as if you’re blocking to have Josh deflect the blow, then you kick to have Josh kick her back, followed up by a punch to stagger her and a swing of the pipe to do some serious damage. After regaining her footing, she lunges forward and starts to bite at you, which engages a short quick-time event with an icon indicating that you need to push your arms forward. After doing so, she falls back, and you follow up with a kick to keep her from regaining her balance, and then pummel her with the pipe. Now you pat yourself on the back for a job well done and quickly sidestep the machete coming down from the right.

With the durability of the weapons on the weak side and a limit of one, you will always be on the lookout for something new. There is quite a variety, too, including scalpels to throw, machetes, saws, vials filled with explosive chemicals, and even an unwieldy chainsaw that has to be used by holding your arms out as if you’re actually holding one. The ability to unbalance with a kick and stagger with a punch adds some much-needed variety to the encounters, and the lenient system often gives the fights a slightly easy but undoubtedly more comfortable feel. The environmental obstacles also keep you on your toes, with instances where you need to balance, stand still, shake off bugs, and dodge all manner of saw blades and spears.

But again, expectation is the key. Take away the motion controls, and Rise of Nightmares would be an overly simplistic game with dated visuals. Keeping in mind that the Kinect is still fairly new and not even close to being mature enough for developers to have a true grasp of what it can do, much less all the interesting workarounds that can be implement (many of which, as noted above, Sega has found themselves), and many of the game’s shortcomings are made much more tolerable. Those considerations can’t completely overcome some of the problems, though, as the find-the-key-to-advance formula can become tiresome, and regardless of whether the technology is in an early stage or not, having the screen jerk about and movement not properly register because the sanctity of the play space has been violated does become frustrating. The manual also skimps out on a lot of detail, and its instructions on how to run is way off the mark—it’s all about rapid motion, not distance. So it’s best to think of this as an intriguing stepping stone to greater motion-based future as it succeeds in many respects, with the caveat that it’s based on early efforts from a relatively new technology and has a barebones presentation.

The phrase “for a Kinect game” must grate on Microsoft’s nerves, but that is simply the state of the games at this stage in the platform’s lifecycle. This is also a problem for those who have the expectations of a motion-control-only game being as refined as a traditional release that’s had the benefit of decade-plus to fall back on in regards to its mechanics and control schemes. Some of the game’s problems are all its own, however, including the forgettable story, some generic monster designs, and some bland level segments—then there’s the occasional detection hiccup. While it might not blow your socks off, Rise of Nightmares does have a novel combat system, some properly surreal elements, and a great carnie horror-house appeal that makes it at least worth a rental. All in all, a solid title. For a Kinect game.

(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)

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